Israel doesn’t normally play a starring role in U.S. governor races.
But in Sunday night’s gubernatorial campaign debate in Florida, Rep. Ron DeSantis repeatedly pivoted to Israel-related issues – from the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement to President Donald Trump’s Jerusalem embassy move – in an effort to paint his opponent as being hostile to the Jewish state.
At the height of the debate, DeSantis, 40, tried to cast Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum’s positions as being appropriate if he was “running for mayor of the Gaza Strip.”
Florida boasts the third-largest Jewish community in the United States, making up an estimated 4 percent of the state electorate – a number that could be decisive in the tight race for the Statehouse.
By portraying himself as the pro-Israel choice, DeSantis – a three-term congressman – appeared to be making a concerted effort to woo Florida’s Jewish voters away from their traditional Democratic leanings.
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The contentious hour-long debate, moderated by CNN’s Jake Tapper, covered issues like gun control, environmental issues, taxes and health care, but was also riddled with name-calling and harsh personal accusations.
The Republican candidate called Gillum, 39, the “failed mayor” of a “crime-ridden” city, while Gillum labeled his opponent the president’s “stooge” – a nod to the strong support the president has given DeSantis on Twitter.
DeSantis first raised the Israel question after Gillum criticized him for failing to return a campaign contribution from a supporter who tweeted a racial slur against former President Barack Obama. Gillum, who will be the state’s first African-American governor if he wins on November 6, also accused DeSantis of using a racist trope by saying he was going to “monkey this up,” in reference to Gillum’s economic policies.
DeSantis attacked Gillum for attending an event that included a group called the Dream Defenders. He said the Tallahassee mayor should have “disavowed” them, instead of signing “a radical pledge” to support them.
“He stood with them and he stood by them. But one of the main planks of their platform is to boycott and divest and sanction the State of Israel. They say Israel is a genocidal apartheid state. They attack law enforcement and the police.That to me is very divisive,” said DeSantis.
“If you want a unified Florida, taking positions about Israel like that – it may be unifying if you’re running for mayor of the Gaza Strip but it ain’t unifying here. We’re a pro-Israel state.”
Gillum responded by defending his position on Israel. “My relationship with Israel is beyond reproach,” he said. “I’m the mayor of a city that has a sister-city relationship with a city in the State of Israel – the city of Ramat Hasharon. I’ve been in Israel three times, and I’ve had rabbis in my city come to my defense in this regard.”
He added that the Israel attack was “a clever way for Mr. DeSantis to get away” from the charges of racial incitement, accusing him of “moderating a xenophobic, racist Facebook page.” Later, he again charged DeSantis with racist messaging, saying his opponent had made an effort to “draw all the attention he can to the color of my skin.”
When DeSantis was asked by moderator Tapper whether he considered the president to be a good role model for the children of Florida, he replied that Trump had shown “true leadership” by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the U.S. Embassy. “Here’s what I know,” he said. “I was very passionate about moving our American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Andrew opposed that. A couple of months ago, he said that was a mistake; that we shouldn’t have recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
“Every president for the past 25 years has promised that on the campaign trail. Once in office, they didn’t do it. Donald Trump promised it, and he followed through with it,” DeSantis continued. “To me, you give your word, you follow through with it as an elected official – that is the model what you are supposed to do. He was right to move the embassy to Jerusalem.”
DeSantis added proudly that he had been in Jerusalem for the embassy’s inauguration ceremony in May.
When Tapper asked Gillum the same question, the candidate said he had been “confused by the question,” asking Tapper to repeat it – in an effort to point out his opponent’s Jerusalem pivot.
“That’s what I thought. I was confused,” Gillum said, to audience laughter. “Donald Trump is weak. And he acts as all weak people do: they become bullies. And Mr. DeSantis is his acolyte. He’s trying out to be the Trump apprentice,” he added.
DeSantis’ comments echoed his campaign strategy of trying to portray Gillum as pro-BDS and anti-Israel. But Gillum pushed back against what he called a distortion of the facts.
Past Republican criticism has focused on Gillum’s appearance in 2017 at Florida Muslim Capitol Day, an event organized by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, when he offered welcoming remarks in his role as the mayor of Florida’s capital. One participating group, which also donated to Gillum’s primary campaign, was the Dream Defenders – the BDS-supporting social justice organization.
His decision to appear as mayor welcoming them, his critics charge, implies support for the boycott movement.
Gillum has pushed back against the charge, along with claims that, if he became governor, he would work to reverse the 2016 anti-BDS law that requires Florida to divest from any companies that boycott Israel.
“I do not support BDS,” he said. “A two-state solution is the only solution that truly pushes us towards peace. I’ll always support the right to free speech and peaceful protest, but I also believe that any tactics that seek to counter a two-state solution makes our path to peace harder.”
The highly partisan race in a state that has been key in every tight presidential election has grabbed national attention, with donations flooding in from both the Democratic and Republican sides, including several Jewish megadonors.
George Soros, Tom Steyer and numerous liberal PACs are supporting Gillum; Sheldon Adelson and other conservative Jewish donors have given major support to DeSantis.